Henry Roth | Critical Review by Fred T. Marsh

This literature criticism consists of approximately 25 pages of analysis & critique of Henry Roth.
This section contains 1,738 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Robert Alter

SOURCE: "The Desolate Breach Between Himself and Himself," in The New York Times Book Review, January 16, 1994, p. 3, 29.

In the following review, Alter compares Roth's two novels, Call It Sleep and Mercy of a Rude Stream, complaining that the latter does not have the emotional depth or novelistic tension of the first.

There is something utterly improbably about the appearance of a second novel by Henry Roth after 60 years of silence, and the new book can scarcely be read except against the enigmatic background of that silence. The haunting story of Mr. Roth's career has often been told—most recently in these pages by my Berkeley colleague, the novelist Leonard Michaels.

Call It Sleep, Mr. Roth's stunning first novel, was published in 1934, when he was 28. The reviews were mixed, at least in part because the prevailing political climate put some critics out of sympathy with a novel that was so intensely personal and so exquisitely wrought. In any case, by the time it appeared Mr. Roth had, in the phrase of the era, "gone left," and he dutifully undertook as his next project a novel of proletarian life. Working against the grain of his own sensibility, he was soon compelled to abandon the book. He produced three uninspired stories for commercial consumption in the late 1930's. After 1940, he gave up writing entirely, supporting himself, mostly in New England, through a variety of jobs—factory worker, psychiatric hospital attendant, waterfowl farmer. A reissue of Call It Sleep in 1960 elicited high praise from a few critics.

Then, in 1964, a paperback edition was brought out, was celebrated on the front page of this review by Irving Howe as a major 20th-century American novel and became a best seller. Mr. Roth, resurrected from what he himself had come to think of as his posthumous existence as a writer, slowly began to turn out short stories again. (All of his stories and interviews, as well as excerpts from his correspondence, were put together by his Italian translator and devoted friend, Mario Materassi, in a 1987 volume, Shifting Landscape.) In 1979 Mr. Roth began work on a vast autobiographical novel, Mercy of a Rude Stream (the title is taken from Shakespeare's Henry VIII). A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park is the first installment of that novel, of which he has completed five additional volumes.

The new novel is not in the strict sense a sequel to Call It Sleep, but it picks up the author's life more or less at the point where the earlier book ended. The family constellation it portrays—irascible father, tender mother, sensitive only son—is basically the same as that of Call It Sleep. The child David Schearl of the earlier novel reappears here, with minor modifications, as Ira Stigman. At the beginning of the novel, the family has just moved, precisely as Henry Roth's family did, from the Jewish East Side to East 114th Street in Harlem, then a predominantly Irish neighborhood. The year is 1914 and Ira Stigman is 8 years old. The volume ends in 1920 with the protagonist in junior high school, working part time for a fancy-food provisioner, troubled by his own emergent sexuality and the aggressive sexuality of certain of the adults around him. But he is even more troubled by "the desolate breach opened between himself and himself" through these six years in exile from his old Jewish neighborhood, struggling to define himself in the eyes of the ethnic others surrounding him and thus impelled to reject his own origins.

Mr. Roth remains an admirable craftsman, and the scenes of immigrant life in the second decade of the century are evoked with persuasive concreteness: the clamorous extended Jewish family, the street brawls, the rather grim socialization process in school, a poor child's glimpse of the glitter of Manhattan high living after the war as he delivers a basket of food to an apartment where a party is under way. But in style, mood and conception, all this is very different from the superficially similar Call It Sleep.

Mr. Roth's first book was clearly an autobiographical novel emulating Joyce (more Portrait of the Artist, I would say, than Ulysses). Indeed, it is arguably the most brilliant American adaptation of Joycean techniques outside the novels of Faulkner. Mercy of a Rude Stream, by contrast, is less an autobiographical novel than a fictionalized autobiography, and it often seems as though the element of fiction does not go much beyond the substitution of different proper names and whatever invention is required to flesh out memories that lie seven decades back in the receding perspective of the past.

The transparency of the guise of fiction is especially evident in the brief intercut passages in which an aged Ira addresses his computer as he tries to reconstruct his childhood. With his mobile home in New Mexico, his rheumatoid arthritis, his devoted pianist wife, Ira is Henry Roth in all but name. A good many of these intercut passages read more like journal entries than integral elements of a novel. Topics that happened to preoccupy the author from day to day between 1979 and the mid-80's, when he was writing this volume, float up between him and his computer screen: his concern about the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, the medical problems he and his wife face and his son's difficulties with his girlfriend. Some of the aged Ira's musings, however—on his silence as a writer, on the elusive task of writing a life, on his attempt to heal the rupture in identity inflicted on him in his youth—are quite suggestive and do throw light on the narrated events.

One way of defining the difference between Mercy of a Rude Stream and Call It Sleep is the systematic renunciation of Joyce in the new novel. Mr. Roth has complained several times in interviews that the seductive allure of Joyce's writing had led him on a course that alienated him from himself, encouraging in him an ideal of pure esthetic fulfillment that turned into a dead end. Here he speaks of Joyce as having "stored up creative static for one supreme discharge" and goes on to say that after following that path of the "hermetic ego" Ira "now was left with the realization that the good heart, the kind and affectionate, the discerning, loyal and understanding heart was far more precious than artistic acclaim."

This book, then, is not a novel about a nascent visionary-artist, like Call It Sleep, though it does include a few evocative representations of the young Ira's romance with language, his excited sense that "if you could put words to what you felt, it was yours." The gorgeous lyric lambency of the early novel inspired by Joyce, has been rigorously excluded from the prose of the new book. With it, a quality of mythic intensity—perhaps as much Melvillian as Joycean—has also been eliminated.

Thus the child in Call It Sleep looks at his father pulsating with anger, whip in hand: "David's father towered above him, rage billowing from him, shimmering in sunlight almost, like an aura." Compare this with a moment early in the new novel when the father ferociously beats his son for supposedly having knocked down Danny True, a smaller child: "Pop had lost all control, and was already treading his son underfoot, stamping on him, so that even Mrs. True's look of satisfaction had turned into one of aversion." The father in the second passage is actually doing something more terrible than the father in the first passage, but the appalling event of an adult tantrum is conveyed as factual report, almost dryly. The hallucinatory sense of the first passage, in which the father looms like some demigod or demon, billowing, shimmering with an aura of incandescent rage, is not intimated in the workaday prose of Mercy of a Rude Stream. The Oedipal triangle of Call It Sleep is still present in the new novel, but it is not permitted to become an electrified zone from which to view the world startlingly enlarged to the proportions of myth. Even a moment of inadvertent sexual arousal when the boy is sharing his mother's bed while the father is off on a trip is presented not as a cataclysmic event but rather as a kind of hormonal ambush, in which the history of Ira Stigman's pubescence makes its own particular contact with the general history of the male of the species.

Mr. Roth's intention everywhere is to set his protagonist in relation to ethnicity, community, humanity, and to avoid the dramatic heightening of the overweening ego even as the boy harbors dreams of an absolute self free of the constricting world that has shaped him. The abundant use of Yiddish here (sometimes a bit garbled in transliteration) is a reminder of the objective existence of a very particular world outside the self of the protagonist. By contrast, Call It Sleep generally renders Yiddish speech as lofty English in keeping with the wrought artifice of the novel.

Mercy of a Rude Stream is absorbing as a meticulous evocation of a now-distant episode of the American experience. The self-critical, self-probing reflections by this author of a single major novel are in themselves quite instructive about the ambiguities of identity and the travails of literary vocation in the American setting. What the book lacks is novelistic tension. Ira Stigman is a focus for experiences without the depth and dynamism of a fully realized fictional character. At one point the aged writer muses over his constant effort "to keep the narrative from falling into separate niches and vignettes," and that seems to me precisely the problem of the book.

One thing comes after another because that is how it happened, or at least that is how the author remembers it, not because there is any inner necessity of imaginative development that drives from beginning to end—as from David Schearl's initial vision of the brass faucets in the tenement sink to his apocalyptic glimpse of the churning fires of the firmament and the dark abyss at the end of Call It Sleep. At least in this first volume of the promised six, Henry Roth has not produced another great novel after 60 years of silence. But the narrative he has fashioned from his life has something to offer as both cultural history and personal insight, and there should be much to look forward to in the five volumes to come.

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This section contains 1,738 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Interview by Henry Roth with David Bronsen
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